In response to on-going Virginia rails-to-trails project studies that would involve converting former freight rail lines to shared pedestrian and bicycle trails, VRPI submitted the following letter and statement to Governor Ralph Northam, Transportatioon Secretary Shannon Valentine, and DRPT Director, Jennifer Mitchell (Sent 12-07-2020).  

Dear Governor Northam, Secretary Valentine and Director Mitchell:

On November 6, the Virginia Rail Policy Institute (VRPI) submitted public comments to
the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) regarding plans to abandon the rail line on
Virginia’s Eastern Shore and develop that right-of-way into a public trail. Our comments (which
are included below), raise issues of importance both for the fate of the Eastern Shore rail line and
for statewide transportation policy that we urge you to consider.

These issues are not limited to the Eastern Shore rail line. Of even greater concern to
VRPI is the proposal to develop a trail on a currently unused rail line in the Shenandoah Valley,
where no passenger rail service parallels congested Interstate 81. The conversion of the inactive
freight line north of Harrisonburg, as proposed in the Shenandoah Rail Trail feasibility study
recently adopted as a budget amendment by the Virginia General Assembly, would leave
Harrisonburg stranded, eliminating future right-of-way for direct passenger service to
Washington and the Northeast Corridor.

 

VRPI offers a best-practices approach for retaining and possibly improving all rail
corridors, and recommends adoption of the following, as standard transportation policy to
address future rail abandonments and rails-to-trails proposals:
1. Current and/or inactive rail lines coming up for abandonment shall be rail banked;
2. If trails are to be developed on banked or abandoned rail lines, trails shall be designed,
constructed, and operated in a manner that will permit future train operations, and;
3. For rail lines that are abandoned, there should be a set period of time, perhaps 25 years,
during which the right-of-way shall not be fragmented or irreversibly repurposed.
As always, we appreciate your efforts to increase the role of passenger and freight rail in
Virginia. This is essential to a carbon-free economy and our planet’s future.

Yours truly,
Meredith Richards
President, Virginia Rail Policy Institute


 Following are the comments of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute (“VRPI”) on the Virginia Department of
Transportation (“VDOT”) Eastern Shore Rail to Trail Study. (Submitted 11-06-2020)

VRPI's mission is to strengthen and improve public policy with respect to both freight and passenger rail
in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Through objective and rigorous research, publication, education and
outreach, VRPI strives to increase public understanding of freight and passenger rail and to promote public
policies that will secure the future of inter-city rail as a cost-effective, sustainable and essential element of
Virginia's 21st Century transportation system

.
VRPI appreciates and understands the interest in developing trails in Virginia, including on the Eastern
Shore. Rail corridors are tempting candidates for trails, as assembling a new corridor for a trail from
scratch represents a daunting and expensive challenge. But VRPI urges caution, as rail corridors were
built for rail transportation, freight and passenger, and once these corridors are lost, it will be exceedingly
difficult to resurrect them in the future, no matter the changed circumstances that may call for return to
rail use.

In the case of the 50-mile Eastern Shore rail line, VRPI acknowledges the long and difficult history of freight
rail transportation along this line. But one thing is for sure – we do not know what is to come. What we do
know is that freight demand will very likely increase in the future and that road capacity is, for various
reasons, unlikely to grow proportionately to match demand. We also know that freight railroads, while
currently retrenching, will respond to future trends and customer demands, and that there may well be a
demand for rail service in places, like the Eastern Shore, where we see little demand today. But will there
be a rail corridor to turn to?

For these reasons, VRPI urges VDOT to design and construct any trail in a way that preserves the
opportunity to rebuild a rail line between Halltown and Cape Charles, as economically as possible. This
could include locating the 15-foot-wide trail corridor to the extreme western or eastern sides of the rightof-
way and keeping the remainder of the right-of-way in public ownership, thus preserving more than
adequate room for a future rail line. Also, bridges and road crossings should be designed to allow future
rail restoration, while no land needed for rail restoration should be sold off to adjacent land owners or
others. We urge VDOT work closely with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation in developing
such a design and in its construction.

VRPI recognizes that the right-of-way likely has gaps or segments where protecting a future rail
line, while building a trail, is not feasible. But the more of the corridor that is protected for future rail with
trail use, the more the public interest will be served. Such a design would further the public policy of
Virginia as stated in Va. Code Section 33.2-1602, which provides:

The General Assembly declares it to be in the public interest that shortline railway preservation and
development of railway transportation support facilities are important elements of a balanced
transportation system of the Commonwealth for freight and passengers, and further declares it to be in the
public interest that the retention, maintenance, and improvement of the shortline railway and development
of railway transportation support facilities are essential to the Commonwealth's continued economic
growth, vitality, and competitiveness in national and world markets.

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this study.